Welcome to paradise

Part 8

Photo: Above Codgers mountain bike trails in Nelson.

Published: 19.03.20

Before leaving the North Island for the very last time I returned to the place I had my first ride in New Zealand. While it was only a little over four months ago, it could have easily been four years. The sensory overload accompanied by this kind of adventure warps time beyond comprehension.

 

I parked at Makara Peak a few hours before my ferry for a few laps. I wanted to ride Yeh Gnar again - the terrifying track I did as a last run on that first ride - but discovering the trails were wet it was a definite na.

 

After waving goodbye to Sara, who had helped me so much, I panic drove to the ferry terminal pushing boarding time boundaries more than ever, but it was delayed anyway. No need to stress in this country.

‘The longer I was away the more I faded from the lives of those who once cared and the less I had in common with them. Soon, it seemed, home and the people I knew there would be unrecognisable and unrelatable.’

One last time at the top of Makara Peak, and how long ago it felt when I first saw this sign on my first New Zealand mountain bike outing.

It felt strange to be on the final leg of the trip with home in sight when I still had one month ahead of me - longer than any holiday I’d been on.

 

I made a plan: One week in Nelson, a week or so zig-zagging down the west coast riding Ghost Road and climbing a few mountains, and then a couple of weeks in Queenstown to sell my things and ride and hang with the boys until my flight. 

 

But as was customary on this trip, my plans would change.

Photos: Third time on the crossing between the countries two halfs. I still wasn't bored of the views - especially coming into Picton. 

Nelson

14 April

Nearly every rider, no matter where I was in New Zealand, said I had to check out Nelson. The rumours of incredible technical riding didn’t really appeal to me though, as I was more into flow, so I didn’t make it a major stop.

 

I had planned to visit earlier in the trip. In fact I had planned to go twice already. Initially as my first stop in the South Island (Maddy’s last minute visit through me off course), and then on the way to Rotorua for Crankworx from Queenstown (forest fires shut down the trails).

 

Third time lucky.

 

I didn’t expect Nelson to touch Queenstown or Rotorua in terms of the quality of riding, and no way in hell did I expect to experience the best mountain biking of the trip (maybe even my life), make good friends and want to live here.

 

On my first evening in town I met a friend from home and hung out with her in the hostel she was staying. It was late by the time I set off to a campsite just out of town and in the epicentre of the mountain bike trail network - Maitai Valley.

 

Then things went south.

Photos: First impressions of riding in Nelson - big hills, very big climbs and steep technical trails.

On the front gates of the campground was a sign indicating it was closed between sunset and sunrise. It was midnight and nobody was around. Fuck. 

 

I was way too tired from a big day of travelling and tipsy from the evening wine to deal with this. I drove along the fire road following the parameter of the campsite to a quiet area, parked, grabbed my tent and jumped the fence. I didn’t feel I had any other option; I just needed to sleep.

 

Since I’d snuck in I felt on edge and decided to leave early the next morning to avoid detection. 

'I felt like a passenger and didn’t even hit the road gap I hadn’t paid any caution to previously. Now there was a line to scope over a blown out berm for the b line and a 10 foot patch of holes.'

Photos: The day I didn't plan to ride, but I was very glad I did. The trails in Richmond may not match those in Nelson, but they're still awesome.

Day 1 - Richmond

15 April

I woke in the early hours to a flat airbed. Forcing myself out of the warm layers of sleeping bag and duvet into the cold I pumped it back up, found where the air was leaking, taped it up, and pumped it up again. Then a seam blew out. 

 

The positive of sleeping on hard ground was I hadn’t gone into deep sleep, so I was naturally awake early. Remembering my predicament, I got up without hesitation, packed up quickly, jumped back over the fence and cooked breakfast down the road. I felt a total mess.

 

After countess wrong turns I made it to a Warehouse to get a replacement bed. I don’t think the staff at the returns desk had ever seen a more tired and disgruntled customer. Bed replaced, and other essentials I’d very annoyingly lost over the past week purchased, I walked out the store still in a daze when my phone rang.

 

It was Maddy. We hadn’t spoken in a few days and things still felt off. She went straight into anxiety offloading but I couldn’t be her rock at that moment. In fact this time I needed positivity and reassurance from the other end of the line. 

 

I told her it wasn’t a good time. I was utterly exhausted, my phone that was almost impossible to charge (especially since losing my external charger) was nearly out of battery, and I had lots to do that depended on said phone for navigation and research.

 

I meant I couldn’t be there for her ‘now’ but she took it to mean ‘ever’, and became increasingly emotionally distant from that day on.

The next stop on my replace-or-fix-my-shit stop was Richmond, a town just out of Nelson, to get a sensor cleaner kit for my camera. I’d been trying to track one down for weeks. 

 

Getting hold of any ‘specialist’ equipment in NZ generally leads to a wild goose chase. Even Wellington, the capital, didn’t stock a lens sensor cleaning kit in any of its four camera stores. Google provided high hopes for a tiny store in Tasman Bay, which was now my last hope before returning home. Search successful and kit finally in hand it was mid day and the sun had perked me up a little.

 

Checking Trailforks, my most used app alongside Rankers Camping, I saw there were trails literally up the road; it was too easy not to. 

‘We were having an amazing session until he totally mistimed a scrub off the boner log at the start of the lower set and was pitched straight over the bars onto his head.

Photos: Views from Fringed Hill Downhill near the end of my first full day in Nelson. This track and the views blew my mind, and this was only the starter.

I asked a couple of riders in the car park where the trails were and they invited me on their lunch break shred. Their names were Bernard and Alan, and they’d become friends over the coming weeks.

 

The tracks were a blast - fast, dusty and with plenty of loose cambered roots between jumps. It felt like I was back in summer after the past few weeks of rain and mud on the North island. A few runs and plenty of laughs later I took their numbers before they returned to work. I found the main downhill track, Hang Ten, and lapped it until the end of the day. 

 

I got back to the car psyched; the morning felt like a different day. Crazy how a good session can turn things around.

Day 2 - A taste of things to come

16 April

Compared to the previous day things got off to a relatively idyllic start. I did end up returning to the campsite the night before after closing and jumped the fence again, and this time I was spotted… But as I woke up to my tent being shaken at 6am on an inflated air bed, things didn’t seem so bad; at least I’d slept.

 

I walked to the other end of the campsite to pay, apologised, then went back to bed. After I woke the second time I ate breakfast under the sun then set off on my first Nelson ride. Conveniently, the uplift trail was less than a hundred metres away from my tent. 

 

I couldn’t believe the length of the climb. I was nearly 6 miles into the ride when I finally, FINALLY, reached the start of my first Nelson trail. Te Are Koa, a 3 mile long descent.

 

The trail was rated a level 4 (out of 6) so I didn’t expect it to be super technical. But damn, I’d never seen roots like it. It was definitely more technical than any grade 5 trail in Rotorua. 

 

Te Are Koa was relentless, with steep sections, unsupported tuns, and fast single track you could easily go off trail if your attention slipped for just one moment. At the bottom the overwhelming feeling was relief I’d survived.

Photos: Signs! Signs with backfrops. Signs with cool names. Signs among other s

Evening was approaching as I climbed the fire road a second time to reach FDH (Fringed Hill Downhill), a 2,365 metre long downhill race track. 

 

FDH was serious, super steep with big jumps at the bottom, and I felt disgustingly exposed in a trail helmet. But this was more like it.

 

I had only done two descents (plus a mini local DH track I found near the bottom of the hill) that day, yet the sun was setting by the time I was heading back along the Coppermine Trail, spoilt with views of the ocean before dropping down to the campsite.

 

The hills here are on steroids. I may have lost an hour or two to being lost, but 7,700 feet of climbing for two descents, TWO!? I had no choice but to become a mountain goat if I was to stand a chance of riding most of the trails here. 

Day 3 - Beaches 

17 April

It would have been rude to spend time in the Tasman Bay region and not visit the renowned coastal area and its beautiful shoreline, so I let the Nomad rest while I joined Ruth for the day.

 

We boarded a boat to Tonga Island and had a 15 mile coastal walk back to the car. It was refreshing to take a break from my solo activities and nice to have the kind of conversations you can only have with someone you know well.

 

The scenery wasn’t bad either. 

 

She was leaving in a couple of days so I made the most of familiar company over the remaining evenings, half of which were spent playing giant Jenga. 

I don't think I fully appreciated this view while I was there, probably because I was busy getting psyched before another lap of Mini DH.

Maitai Valley Campground

Gates shutting at sunset issues aside, this was for sure the best campsite I’d stayed in. As well as being situated in the middle of one of the best mountain bike trail networks in the world, it had everything I could need.

 

For $10 (£5) a night there was spacious grounds to pitch up far from people, proper toilet and shower blocks, a kitchen with fridges, seating and even a TV, a computer/charging room, washing machines, drying lines and essentials you could buy from reception. 

 

Both the showers and washing machine cost two bucks so I didn’t use them much. I showered every few days, just having sink washes on others after riding, and I only used the washing machine once because a friend gave me an unused token when he left.

 

While in NZ the choice was either camp for free or cheap, but struggle with no power, no fresh food or even drinking water a lot of the time, or spend 3x to stay in a hostel with amenities but also the dreaded risk of snorers to ruin your stay. The former tended to also be very solitary, and the latter very social. This campsite was the perfect mix.

 

Leaving my pan out to dry one evening, a group of young hippie American gap year students assumed it belonged to the campsite and used it. When they realised it was mine they apologised and thanked me with beer, and I hung out with them that night.

'Half way up, after much route confusion from the start, the weather turned and visibility plummeted to 20 feet as the sky filled with snow. Since I had no idea whether I was even going the right way I considered sacking it off. I felt out of my depth scrambling up a mountain with little.'

Photos: A few from a scary ascent of Mount Ruapehu, the tallest mountain on the North Island.

On another day I asked a guy wearing knee pads how he was liking the trails, which led to me hanging out with him and his multi-national crew over the next few days. They all met in the country and were from Germany, Scotland, Canada and Switzerland. I later realised I’d briefly met the Scottish guy in Queenstown a couple of months earlier when he trained me through Mini Dream at Wynyard. He remembered this clearly, having cased hard going at my speed.

 

The Canadian had been touring the South Island with everything he need strapped to his 29” wheeled Transition mountain bike - travelling by road and hitting the mountain bike trails along the way. They were a fun crew, laughing at nothing and everything, generous with their food and always stoked. I was sad when they left.

And a few more! Looking out to Mount Doom (one I planned but didn't have time for), happy to be descending with other people, and a brief spell of visibility on the upper ridge of Mt Ruapehu.

Shocking stories

As I paid the campsite woman she enlightened me about the wld and crazy happenings of the past 15 years. 

 

There were stories of New Years Eve parties when the campsite was packed with hundreds of 16 year olds, as it was in their contract to provide space for them to drink and party so they weren’t the towns problem. She spoke of her worries of teenagers overdosing on drugs but luckily no-one had died. 

 

The valley had witnessed more than its fair share of death however, due to turf wars, car crashes, flooding and other natural disasters, a neighbour who hung himself, and a shooting.

 

She recalled a couple who stayed at the campsite for a few weeks who seemed perfectly happy. Then one day the man, after exchanging a cheery hello that morning, shot his wife and then himself ten minutes later.

 

But she remained, herself becoming part of the Maitai valley and its history.

'My face was sore from sun burn, the hostel I found on Google when my phone eventually let me in, miles into the countryside, appeared to no longer exist. Then my phone ran out of battery and wouldn’t charge because of a faulty connection when I needed to figure out where to go instead, then I realised the fuel gauge was hovering over empty and I had no idea where I was (...) I'd had enough.'

Top ridge to the summit of Ruapehu shortly before the cloud engulfed everything. I was actually walking the wrong way on the top ridge until I turned around to take this photo . 

Back to riding

I couldn’t believe the number of incredible trails in Redwoods, Rotorua, but this was something else. The quantity and quality of trails in Nelson totally blew my mind, quite a feet considering I’d ridden in Whistler, much of the Alps, the Scottish Borders and the rest of New Zealand. This has to be one of the most densely packed areas of mountain bike trails in the world.

 

The tracks were the longest I’d encountered outside of a bike park and there was so much variety: from some of the steepest and rockiest trails I’d ever ridden, to smooth loamy single track. 

 

There are national downhill race tracks with large jumps (Kaka DH, FDH and Broken Axe), crazy off camber 15 minute long enduro trails (Putakari), savage rock rolls, mellow and fast flow trails (Turners), and tracks best described as a rollercoaster (DiVAS). 

 

On top of that, there was huge variety within each track, such as Broken Axe with its super steep rocky sections, large jumps and a fast smooth woods section. 

Turn a corner and bam, the enormity of Mount Taranaki hits you. This view made me excited for the day ahead.

Ten days and nearly as many full days riding later I was still discovering mind-blowing trails and my limits were constantly being pushed. The process of looking down sections terrified, pin balling down them, then doing full runs faster each time was addictive. 

 

I was totally hooked. After every run I’d think of where I could hold off the brakes for longer and where I could take better line choices. The tracks were so good they sparked a fire in me to try harder each run and take more risks; it was rare for me to ride all out. 

 

It seemed impossible to get bored of the riding here. I was only held back by my legs taking me back to the top. The stoke at the end of each lap got up the first part until the ache in my legs returned. I was doing back-to-back days of 5-8k elevation without a second thought; I’d never pushed myself so hard day after day. 

A typical day entailed getting out of my tent around 7 or 7.30, having a wok of porridge (usually with cut up apples, banana and chocolate spread) with coffee, rolling out of the campsite between 8-8.30, doing laps until lunchtime, having an hour at the campsite to eat (toast, eggs, cheese and tomatoes with more coffee) and chill, before heading back out until sunset, then eating for most of the evening while making vague plans for the following day, retreating to my tent around 10pm to read Chris Ryan ‘The One That Got Away’ (found at the campsite) to put me in my place and sleep. Life was so simple and fulfilling.

Up to the summit of Mount Taranki, on the summit and then the cloud drove in again. It seemed it wasn't going to blow over, and the wind picked up some more, so we quickly made our way down. Half an hour later we looked back at the summit in full sunshine. 

The scene

There were always good vibes from the locals and joining them for laps was a treat. On one occasion we rode Aorere, a technical enduro trail with plenty of slippery off camber, which I wasn’t really into the day before, but in a huge train the wildness just added to the fun.

 

Another time I rode with a younger local and got dropped. As nice as he was I couldn’t avoid resenting him for living here - and no doubt getting so good as a result. He rode savage off camber like it was flat ground.

 

For the first time I was loving the thrill of steep and technical tracks, despite feeling totally out of my depth, and I’d clocked more miles and elevation than ever before:

  • 15 days

  • 12 rides

  • 332 miles

  • 75,000 feet elevation

Ascending Mount Taranaki, taking photos during spells of visibility. The constantly changing sky definitely added to the experience.

Rain dodging

Over a couple of days of heavy rain I treated myself to a hostel and took a well needed rest. 

 

I’d grown fascinated by mountaineering films since getting a taste of it, sweating on the edge of my seat watching horrifying first ascents of the worlds most dangerous peaks.

 

One of the biggest names in mountaineering is David Lama, who’s videos I often searched for. While I was at the hostel the news came out of his death, along with fellow mountaineers Hansjoerg Auer and Jess Roskelley, who were hit by an avalanche while attempting a first ascent of a 10,810-foot mountain in Canada.

 

I was stumped, in disbelief that arguably the worlds best, in his prime, would be taken away - despite the matter of fact that position cast him regularly in the shadow of death.

'Unknown to me as I relaxed on the ferry, my final weeks in the country were about to get wild. If this trip was a party then Nelson was the afterparty, and it was about to get heavy.'

10,000ft elevation day

26 May

The sun shone again, the trails dried out and it was back to business. After so many consecutive 7 and 8k elevation days without trying, I knew this was the place for a 10k elevation day challenge. Some of my favourite trails in the world, all close to one another and accessible by fire roads - it was perfect.

 

The prospect of riding ten of Nelson’s best trails in a single day got me pumped. The climbing aspect was only part of the challenge. The downhill alone was more than you’d usually get on an uplift day, and it included a large number of the most technically difficult and physical tracks I’d ever ridden - including three downhill race tracks. Has anyone done a 10k day with a Troy Lee D3 helmet before?

 

The day included two grade 6 and two grade 5 trails I hadn’t ridden, a jump session, and hitting some crazy A lines for the first time. 

Up to the summit of Mount Taranki, on the summit and then the cloud drove in again. It seemed it wasn't going to blow over, and the wind picked up some more, so we quickly made our way down. Half an hour later we looked back at the summit in full sunshine. 

Later that morning I met Bernard and Max for party trains down Kaka DH and Maitai Face - two huge descents. The vibe was so strong with those guys that the hunger and thirst blew over me. By the time they left it was mid afternoon and I’d ridden five tracks and done around 6k elevation on breakfast, two granola bars and two water bottle fills (thanks to a refill from Bernard).

 

Exhaustion hit on the awful steep and loose fire road to the top of Codgers, twice. Once for Broken Axe and again for a new one from the start of Kaka DH - Putakari. The physical tracks had also begun to take their toll on my upper body and I was struggling to hold rough lines.

 

Despite barely surviving the upper parts of Broken Axe I scoped out and hit two new A lines. The first was a drop into a steep narrow chute I barely survived. The second was a hop over a large rock with a tricky run in to hold speed, which I was more nervous about but hit perfectly.

Putakari is a favourite among some locals - described to me as a more technical version of Kaka DH without jumps. This seemed as good a time as any to check it out I thought, since I’d already ridden the DH track and there wouldn’t be any large consequence features to stress over.

 

It was the only time I rode this track. It reminded me of the time I was jumped as a teenager, taken down and then had eight feet repeatedly kicking me in the head.

 

At least now the worst was out of the way.

 

Several hours later, and on my last run, I could barely see the trail in front of me. I couldn’t have ridden another track even if I wanted to as it was now totally dark. The final stats read 38 miles, a moving time of 7 hours 15 minutes, and 10,233 feet of elevation gain. I’d done it.

Photos: Dirt Farm including the main guy with the vision, Tim Browne. Panorama clip shot on the top roll in, which is also the start to Sky Burial.

More runs and partying

27 May

Unexpectedly, I didn’t feel too bad the following day and packed in another 6000 feet to dial in Broken Axe, Smasher, Turners, DiVAS and Lollipop until a storm ended the fun.

 

I checked back into a hostel that night as it was Alan’s moving to Canada leaving do. I expected the night to involve a few drinks but nothing hectic, since quite a few of the group had families. 

 

Once again I was proved totally wrong. The crew weren’t just wild on the bike and knew how to have a good time. A few hours and a house stop later we were in a club and on another level. 

 

While at the house I put The Brian Jonestown Massacre on, which sounded incredible in the zone we were in. Speaking to Bernard about music and life in general, I felt a profound connection on a level I hadn’t experienced before; this was the first time I’d met someone who was totally on my wavelength; a feet I didn’t think was possible, and it was intense.

My last few shots of Wellington on the Ring Belt. By far the most beautiful capital city I've visited.

Motueka

28 April

I detoxed the next day with a steady ride at a trail area outside of town by the sea - Kaiteriteri MTB Park. The riding was tame but anything more intense that day would have been a bad idea. 

 

Relaxing after the ride with my first NZ Fish and Chips on the beach, I reflected on my time in Nelson and felt gutted about leaving in two days time. I’d extended my stay from one week to 15 days, dropping Old Ghost Road and a sensible amount of time in Queenstown to prepare to leave. My flight back to England was in 10 days and I had to sell up first - I was out of tme.

 

I’d struggled to leave places before but this was different. This was the first place I didn’t just want to stay for longer, but indefinitely. Nelson truly felt like home. It wasn’t just that the riding was the best I’d experienced, the town just felt right, the scenery was incredible, and the locals had already become my friends despite the short period of time I was there. I loved their stoke and I felt like, for once, I fitted in.

A few days earlier I desperately applied to reporter jobs and was invited to an interview, of course on a date after I would be gone. It was hopeless. I wished I’d discovered Nelson earlier in the trip. If I would have secured a half-decent job I’d have stayed.

 

The trails were wet on my last day but I couldn’t pass on a last opportunity to ride so checked out some trails that were recommended by Max to session in the wet, then met Bernard for a drink in the evening to say goodbye. 

Time's up

30 May

While I was devastated to leave, I was also psyched on how I squeezed every drop out of the time I was there. I’d lived every day to the full, crammed in more riding in two weeks than I’d ever done before (Whistler included), and made good friends. 

 

It felt like a whirlwind romance, and I knew one day I’d be back.

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